Microsoft finally ships Windows XP SP3 – and here’s how you can get it

Microsoft Monday finally slapped a “Done” sticker on Windows XP Service Pack 3(SP3)and pushed it out the door.

The designation of SP3 as RTM, for “release to manufacturing,” wasn’t much of a surprise, given how the company’s schedule leaked last week.

But SP3’s path has been long and sometimes tortuous — Microsoft often simply seems to ignore XP, preferring instead to trumpet Vista — but it looks like Microsoft’s aged, and aging, operating system is wrapping up with the release of its certain-to-be-the-last service pack.

Despite the focus on Vista, there have been a ton of questions about SP3.

Fortunately, we have the answers, too.

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Can I get Windows XP SP3 now? Depends on who you are. Microsoft said that it is shipping the code to computer makers and making it available to volume licensing customers.

“SP3 has released to manufacturing,” said Chris Keroack, XP SP3’s release manager, in a message posted on a TechNet support forum. “Windows XP SP3 bits are now working their way through our manufacturing channels to be available to OEM and Enterprise customers.”

So when do I get SP3? Microsoft said it would put SP3 on Windows Update (WU) on April 29. Starting then, you’ll be able to update by calling up WU, then selecting the download.

For several weeks, SP3 will be optional, just like Windows Vista SP1, which still hasn’t come out of its manual WU mode.

Wait a minute. I’m a TechNet or MSDN subscriber and I can’t get SP3 Monday? Apparently not. And apparently Microsoft didn’t learn a lesson from the February debacle when it first denied Vista SP1 to the IT professionals and developers who pay hundreds annually for the right to download the company’s software for testing purposes.

As a recap, two months ago TechNet and MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) subscribers raised a stink when they weren’t allowed access to Vista SP1 after it was marked RTM; Microsoft took nearly two weeks to change its mind and release the upgrade to the services. A reprise appears in the works. Monday, Keroack told TechNet/MSDN subscribers, “Not yet. This will be available within the next month,” when asked on a support forum when the service pack would be available.

What if I want to wait for WU to do the heavy lifting for me? Just sit tight. Microsoft will begin pushing SP3 to most users — all those who have set WU to automatically download and install important updates — sometime in “early summer,” according to Microsoft’s Keroack.

What if I want to wait for WU to do the heavy lifting for me? Just sit tight. Microsoft will begin pushing SP3 to most users — all those who have set WU to automatically download and install important updates — sometime in “early summer,” according to Microsoft’s Keroack.

I’m running Windows XP Professional 64-bit. What do I do? Nothing. There is no SP3 for you.

Instead, hotfixes, updates and enhancements for your OS were delivered last month as part of Windows Server 2003 SP2. You can download a 351MB installer from here. I’m leery of XP SP3 because I don’t want Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) on my PC. What do I do? Stop worrying, for one. Microsoft’s not including the newer browser — which is run by just 30% of business users more than a year after its debut — with the service pack. Instead, it includes fixes for IE6 and IE7, but doesn’t disturb whichever version is currently installed on the PC.

Will Microsoft give in and extend Windows XP availability? Although we’re tempted to say “Only Steve Ballmer knows,” we’re not even sure of that. This is what the company’s CEO said last week during a talk at the company’s annual MVP — Most Valuable Professional — confab at Redmond HQ. “We have a lot of customers that are choosing to stay with Windows XP, and as long as those are both important options, we will be sensitive, and we will listen, and we will hear that,” Ballmer said.

So while he said he’d listen, he didn’t promise to let OEMs sell systems with the aged OS past the current June 30 deadline, or keep selling XP at retail after that date either.

“I know we’re going to continue to get feedback from people on how long XP should be available,” Ballmer added. “We’ve got some opinions on that. We’ve expressed our views.”

One thing we do know: Microsoft said nothing Monday about granting another reprieve.

Will Microsoft offer free technical support if I have problems with installing SP3, or after installing the service pack? Excellent question; you must have heard that Microsoft isn’t charging for Vista SP1 calls. The short answer: Yes.

The long answer, courtesy of a Microsoft spokeswoman: “XP SP3 support will be free, conforming to standard Microsoft lifecycle support for all service packs. You’ll be able to find detailed support information on the support lifecycle page after XP SP3 RTMs.

Normally, Microsoft refers users who obtained XP as part of a new PC to the computer manufacturer or reseller when problems pop up; the company’s for-fee support runs US$59 per request unless the user or business has a prepaid support plan with Microsoft.

XP SP3 queries, however, will be free for one year from today. Users can contact Microsoft by phone, e-mail or online chat.

Will XP SP3 be available at retail? Unclear. But because Microsoft’s set June 30 as the drop-dead date for XP in retail — and for that matter banning large-scale OEMs from installing it on new machines — it’s very doubtful.

That means if you buy a copy of XP between now and … whenever … since we’re sure it won’t vanish overnight from store shelves and certainly not from eBay, you’ll have to do an after-the-fact update to SP3.

Can I roll back XP to its pre-SP3 condition if I want? How do I do that? Yes, and it’s easy.

To ditch SP3 and return to (presumably) SP2, open “Add or Remove Programs” from Control Panel, check the “Show Updates” box, then scroll to the bottom of the listing. Select “Windows XP Service Pack 3” and then click the “Remove” button.

The PC needs to reboot, but after that the machine should return to its pre-SP3 state.


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